Whether you’re travelling in a comfortable four-wheel drive or pumping your way forwards on a bicycle, Southeast Asia offers some splendid road-trip routes and plenty of golden opportunities to meander off the beaten track.

If you’re in search of a vacation that offers true freedom and a break away from the predictable routine of everyday life, look no further than the humble road trip.

Not only does hiring your own transportation mean you’re not chained to a timetable, but it also means you’re blissfully free of any final destination – meaning you can head in pretty much any direction that takes your fancy. From the gleaming ice-white beaches of the Malaysian peninsula to the cloud-topped craggy mountains of Central Vietnam, Southeast Asia offers plenty of world-class scenery to form the backdrop of your trip. For those who can’t set forth without a little structure, we’ve put together a list of some of the top road trip loops that the region has to offer.

A Path Through the Clouds: Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass

This breath-taking ribbon of road offers the best of both worlds when it comes to views, serving up misty mountain vistas alongside stunning panoramas of the Vietnamese coastline. Until 2005, when the Hai Van tunnel opened, this 19-kilometres stretch of highway offered the only route vehicles could take to travel north or south within this region of the country. The road traverses a branch of the imposing Truong Son mountain range and is situated just south of the Ai Van Son peak. The winding mountain path is high on the hit list of many keen amateur cyclists, and is much safer ever since the tunnel provided a thoroughfare for large buses and trucks that no longer have to navigate the twists and turns of the road. If you are planning on tackling the pass on a two-wheeled mode of transportation, the dry season from April through October offers the best conditions. The top of the pass is the only place you can stop to breathe in the spectacular views, and if you have time, the picturesque countryside on the northern side of the pass around Lang Co is well worth exploring.

Escape the Crowds in Bali: Amlapura to Amed

While the world-famous beaches of Southern Bali hold plenty of allure for many travellers, those that want to escape the crowds and venture off the beaten track often head up to the east and much less developed side of the island. If you have an afternoon to kill, hiring your own wheels (car, motorbike or even bicycle) and exploring this remote area will yield a plethora of unforgettable sights, from tiny mountain hamlets to dramatic ocean vistas. The route curls around the eastern side of Mt. Seraya and thanks to a multitude of steep ascents and descents this route isn’t for cyclists that are faint of heart. The Amed region comprises a long stretch of fishing villages, including Amed, Jemeluk, Bunutan, Lipah, Selang, Banyuning and Aas. Thanks to the relatively under-developed surroundings, this area provides the perfect opportunity to savour the authentic Balinese experience.

Thailand’s Northern Loop: Chiang Mai, Nan and Lampang

To make the best of this route, plan to get going between December and January when your visibility won’t be hampered by the wet season’s rainfall or the annual burning of the paddy fields. There are plenty of stops that can be incorporated into this wide loop, depending how much time you have free in your itinerary. Heading north from Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao offers a convenient stop-off point to take a breather and relax – and perhaps even have a go at some mountain climbing. Riding east, Phrao will be your next stop before forging onwards to the scenic lakeside town of Phayao. Next up is Phu Lang Ka, which promises ethereal views across the mist-filled valley. Nan will be your next stop, and is conveniently placed for access to one of the six national parks in the vicinity. Continue southeast through Phrae before winding up in Lampang, a pretty riverside town that’s home to the stunning Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, a short distance from the town. From here, it’s back to Chiang Mai.

Beach Getaway: Johor Bahru to Desaru in Malaysia

If you need a break from the bright lights of Johor Bahru, the capital of Johor state, then it’s time to pack up the car and head up to Desaru for some R&R on the beach. Desaru is home to some of the country’s finest beaches, and if you’ve hired a car to travel up there, you’re blessed with the opportunity to beach hop until you find the perfect place to settle with a chilled glass of beer. The journey from Johor Bahru out to the coast only usually takes about one and a half hours, and has been made a lot swifter since the opening of the Senai-Desur Highway five years ago. The golden coastline stretches on for about 20 kilometres, so there are plenty of gems to discover while you’re in the area. Nearby Kota Tinggi also offers up a selection of scenic rock pools and waterfalls if you have the time to stop by and see the stunning performance of the fireflies. Other popular activities in the area include snorkelling and surfing.

A Tale of Two Cities: Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

For those that want to explore Cambodia’s two main cities, capital Phnom Penh and spiritual hotspot Siem Reap, hiring a car – preferably a sturdy four-wheel drive – is the only viable option here. On a good day, this journey will take approximately six hours, so travelling via any other means of transportation isn’t recommended. While this long, straight road itself may lack the wow factor exuded by the likes of Vietnam’s Hai Van pass, this route offers up some quintessential Cambodian scenes – think peaceful, glistening rice paddies stretching to the horizon, dotted with grazing water buffalo. Whichever direction you’re travelling in, the reward is great. Not only is Siem Reap home to the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex, but it also boasts a burgeoning health and wellness scene. The busier city hub of Phnom Penh offers up a wealth of historical treasures, many of which are within a stone’s throw of the quaint French-style promenade along the Tonle Sap River.


Top tips

  • If you’re travelling by motorbike on any of the mountainous routes, be aware that early morning and evening are likely to be chilly – dress accordingly.
  • Road tripping provides a fabulous opportunity to escape tourist trap restaurants and sample the local fare at roadside street food stalls.
  • Ensure you are fully protected by your travel insurance if you’re planning on heading out on a road trip – particularly if you’re hiring a motorbike or cycling.
  • Remember to pack a comprehensive map of the area you’re exploring – that way you can tailor your route to suit the time you have available, and take in all of the things that you want to see.
  • If you’re hiring a car to discover Southeast Asia’s hidden corners, consider topping up the tank at regular intervals. If you’re exploring more remote areas, you never know how long it could be until you reach the next gas station.

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Rebecca Foster
Rebecca has travelled extensively in America, Europe and Asia and worked as an English teacher in Thailand and South Korea. She has also contributed to several publications in the UK and Asia and enjoys hiking, yoga and taekwondo whilst on her travels.